David Frum has an interesting piece blaming the congressional reforms of the 1970s for creating today’s dysfunctional congress. I agree with Bruce Bartlett, however, that you really can’t talk about this issue without talking about race, civil rights, and realignment. As Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have shown there was a period of unusually low political polarization:
And this seems pretty clearly to have been linked to the unusual presence of large numbers of conservative southern white supremacists in the Democratic Party:
That kind of scrambled alignment of ideology with partisanship opened the door to a lot of the dealmaking of yore. But it should be said that this system also badly undermined democratic accountability, as political outcomes were only related to electoral outcomes in a very fuzzy and hard-to-predict way. What’s more, to be sustained required the systematic disenfranchisement and brutalization of millions of Americans. So I don’t see any real use in pining for it. What’s needed is either to accept a situation in which initiatives (not only bills, but also confirmation of judges and elected officials) rarely pass congress or else to better-adapt or political institutions to the well-sorted parties of today.